Brilliant Night for Pittsburgh Symphony and Daniele Rustioni

Powerful Program a Triumph for Orchestra and Guest Conductor

By George B. Parous

Due to the sudden indisposition of the announced conductor, guest Daniele Rustioni made his debut last evening with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Of all the many happy faces in or around Heinz Hall about 10:30 or so, Maestro Rustioni’s had to be one of the happiest. A young man (who can’t be more than 40), he has an impressive resume of his own that eliminates at once any idea that he is a mere “stand-in.” He is a symphonic and operatic orchestral conductor with years to go to add to his already remarkable list of accomplishments.

Just a sampling of those accomplishments, taken directly from last night’s program, is one paragraph’s worth of his achievements: “Daniele Rustioni, recently awarded as ‘Best Conductor of the Year’ at the International Opera Awards 2022, is one of the most compelling conductors of both opera and symphonic works of his generation. Music Director of Opéra National de Lyon since September 2017 he is at the helm of the Ulster Orchestra in the UK as Music Director starting from the season 2022/23 after three seasons as Chief Conductor. In September 2021 he started the tenure as Principal Guest Conductor of the Bavarian State Opera. Daniele Rustioni is also Conductor Emeritus of the Orchestra della Toscana, where he served as Music Director between 2014 and 2020.” Six similar sized paragraphs follow. Last evening, he more than justified his reputation.

He’s also fun to watch in action. He’s dynamic, rather than manic, in his motions and directions to the instrumentalists. His face is lively, and Ruth to my right swore she saw him puffing his cheeks at the horn section. Occasionally, passionate spots drew him body and soul toward the main source of the glorious sound. His baton is constantly in motion without being a distraction, and it was clear that there was a palpable sympathy between him and the orchestra. Sometimes he hops up and down. Pretty high, too.

Conductor Daniele Rustioni (photo by Davide Cerati)

Oddly, there wasn’t an indication that all would go swimmingly from the very start. The program opened with Johannes Brahms’ Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15. For several pages in, things didn’t seem quite right. Without being able to pinpoint the exact reason, the well-known PSO laser-like precision just didn’t seem to be there, and when Francesco Piemontesi (seen in top banner of article), the guest soloist, began to play the piano, it wasn’t immediately clear that things would soon improve. Under the circumstances, it appeared as though time hadn’t been available for rehearsal, but – then it happened. The precision was there. As if someone flipped a switch. It was definitely the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra playing the Brahms masterpiece, with a first-class, world-renowned pianist adding his magic to the musical mix. A storm of applause broke out at the concerto’s finale – just as some good-sized storms had interrupted between the movements. After several recalls, the crowd went silent as Piemontesi returned to the piano for an encore.

The second half opened with Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza (“suddenly, with power”). Clocking in at only six minutes in duration, some auditors might find that the end comes before they know what to make of it. The piece was composed in 2020 “on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth,” as Ms. Chin inscribed her score. Borrowing, again from the program, British critic Simon Cummings has written that “the piece is less about quotation than celebrating, and mirroring, the indomitable attitude of one of music’s truly great innovators. Chin has sought to embody one of the key defining characteristics of Beethoven’s music: the restless, relentless fire and energy that propels his music with seemingly unstoppable force. This is articulated, as the title implies, via a connected sequence of sudden shifts.” “What appeals to me,” Ms. Chin has said of her lower-case work, “are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.”

A piece such as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45, is one that is better experienced than it is easily translated into printed words. “Fantastic Dances” was a title Rachmaninoff considered while working on this, his last composition, and that title would have worked just as well for the three dances that make up the work. This colossally beautiful orchestral suite was played last evening in a manner that thrilled from the first note until the last, and with a spirit and vigor that would have impressed the composer himself. The opening movement is powerful, with expressive contrast in the middle section, and very “Russian sounding” writing for the winds. In the coda the strings play a beautiful theme against the flute and piccolo and orchestra bells. This theme the composer recycled from his First Symphony, a work that was shredded by critics, which had caused him considerable distress years earlier. A waltz follows – a slightly morose waltz, but a waltz. The final movement is a glorious conclusion, with bits of quotations from Russian Orthodox liturgical chants and from the Dies Irae of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. Odd choices to work into a “Dance,” but stunningly impressive music just the same. Rustioni and the orchestra made a magnificent masterpiece of the suite and brought thunderous applause and several recalls for the conductor.

For the post-concert, which kept a fair number of people behind, Kristina Yoder and Yeokyung Kim (violins), Andrew Wickesberg (viola) and Alexandra Lee (cello), played a delightful rendition of the adagio from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Opus 13.

If you’re in the mood for an orchestral thrill, head to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website or box-office and don’t miss tomorrow’s 2:30 matinee.

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